With $1.69 billion in its coffers, Stanford’s new Doerr School of Sustainability is now the unicorn of higher education programs focused on climate change.
Although Stanford is not the first university to launch a sustainability school—Arizona State University is home to the nation’s oldest, and the Columbia Climate School launched in July 2020 with a similar model—its substantive backing has made it the de facto leader in the space even before it launches in September.
“What Stanford does matters to higher ed globally,” said Julian Dautremont, director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). “They are being emulated by other institutions that are seeking to climb the rankings.”
The school is backed by a $1.1 billion gift from venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife, Ann, announced on May 4—the largest ever for the well-resourced university—and an additional $590 million from other philanthropists. With that investment, Stanford is poised to address climate change on several fronts: training future innovators and leaders on climate science and solutions; investing in sustainability research projects; and convening stakeholders around how to solve the planet’s most pressing problem.
While some have questioned whether a climate school is the best way to fight global warming, those in sustainability education say the initiative has the potential to move the needle on this massive problem by creating space to test risky ideas. Advocates of sustainability education say the funding and new multidisciplinary program couldn’t arrive fast enough to help fill the climate talent gap and the next generation of jobs needed to mitigate climate change.
“The challenge that we are facing requires bold thinking,” Doerr School inaugural dean Arun Majumdar said, adding that students will move on to a variety of careers with both long-term and short-term perspectives on climate change. “We will offer the education and the foundation for both kinds of value they can provide to society.”
Green talent gap
A growing focus on sustainability in higher education comes as the topic gains urgency among young people.
In April, Times Higher Education published a survey of prospective international students that found sustainability is a top factor in what and where students are choosing to study: 82% said it is important for them to be sustainable citizens, and of those, one-quarter said they would pay more to attend a university with a good reputation for sustainability.
The market for sustainability jobs is also growing. In February, LinkedIn reported that millions of new climate jobs will be added in the next 10 years and that current growth in the skilled labor pool isn’t keeping pace with the demand for talent. The number of renewable energy and environment jobs available in the U.S. has jumped 237% in the past five years.
Plans for the Stanford school are moving quickly. By fall, the school will have merged several academic departments to welcome its first cohort of students. There are also plans to hire new faculty and add buildings to the Palo Alto campus.
The school has an accelerator program to fund climate research projects, and Fortune has learned that the first round of projects have already been chosen, with 30 awardees receiving funding ranging from $20,000 to $1 million. The research projects range from electrifying Stanford’s vehicle fleet to using satellite data to identify ways to replenish groundwater.
Majumdar, who spoke to Fortune the day before he officially became dean of the school on June 15, said the accelerator program is Stanford’s answer to the urgency of the climate change threat: It will direct funding to near-term policy and tech solutions at a faster pace than a typical academic program.
“We’ve got to solve problems now,” he said, comparing the new sustainability school to a medical school where both long-term research and immediate treatment of sick patients coexist.
Majumdar, a professor of mechanical engineering, has a background in Washington that will help the new school play a role in shaping climate policy. He was the founding director of ARPA-E, the federal agency tasked with developing advanced energy technologies, and currently serves as chair of the advisory board for the U.S. secretary of energy. In the fall, he plans to co-teach a course for incoming students with former Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Majumdar said universities play a valuable neutral role alongside governments and the private sector, enabling innovations and convening stakeholders, but without a stake in a particular outcome.
“We all want to solve the problem, but the pathway to get there is debatable,” he said. “Those discussions need to happen, and academia provides a platform.”
For now, students can choose from the existing set of degrees already offered by the programs that are merging to create the Doerr School. This includes areas of study ranging from geology to civil engineering.
“We haven’t launched a school in 75 years, so there is no playbook,” Majumdar said. “We will be trying out things, we will be bold, because of the times that we’re living in. The challenge that we’re facing requires bold thinking.”
Majumdar said that he imagines most undergraduates will take an introductory course on sustainability from the school, just as 90% of Stanford students enroll in CS 106A to learn about computer science. A foundational understanding of climate change is essential across the industries where students may work, he noted.
Many other colleges and universities have introduced sustainability courses in response to students or are merging departments such as energy and environment to develop more holistic climate curriculums.
Duke University, for example, is making climate and sustainability core to its educational mission. It is taking an interdisciplinary approach to study climate change from a variety of angles.
“Climate change is its own unique type of problem: In a way it’s an environmental problem, but it’s also a justice issue; it’s a business innovation issue. It can’t be neatly confined to one part of the intellectual spectrum,” said Brian Murray, interim director of the recently merged Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Duke University Energy Initiative.
What students want is becoming more important to universities as they undergo disruption, noted Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
“Students are now less interested in four-year degrees and more interested in credentials and shorter programs that will connect curriculum to career,” Pasquerella said. “More and more colleges and universities are developing programs that will give students hands-on experience with this type of unscripted problem of the future.”
At Columbia University, the first cohort of students graduated last month with a master’s degree in climate and society. Among them are Briana Carbajal, 22, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where she attended public school under a noisy and polluting freeway.
As an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles, Carbajal developed an urban heat map to show how poor L.A. neighborhoods were an average of 10 degrees hotter than affluent ones. Carbajal sought a career in climate policy after graduating, but returned to school to focus on environmental justice.
The master’s program at Columbia has enabled Carbajal to find that ideal job, working as a state legislative manager for an environmental justice advocacy group. Others in the program are going into fashion, communications, journalism, and television—all with a lens on climate.
Carbajal said the program offered an important foundational understanding of climate change.
“There’s a big science and technical aspect to this program, including the dynamics and physics of climate change,” Carbajal said. “I didn’t know enough about the technicalities behind climate change.”
Majumdar said he is working closely with Columbia and others in a collaborative spirit as Stanford builds out its school. He hopes that Stanford’s significant undertaking has “raised the bar” for other institutions, and he said he welcomes a “race to the top” that will draw more attention and resources to the problem at hand. The problem of climate change is bigger than any single institution can solve, he and others who were interviewed noted.
The school is not without its critics. In an open letter, Stanford alumni, faculty, and students expressed concern over the school’s accepting funds from the fossil fuel industry. Their response was prompted in part by a New York Times interview with Majumdar in May, in which he said the school would work with and accept money from oil and gas companies.
“Funding for educational programs does not cancel out fossil fuel extraction,” said Alex Marquardt, cofounder of the Climate Defense Project, which has filed a legal complaint against Stanford and other higher ed institutions over their endowment investments in fossil fuel companies.
Others have questioned the Doerrs’ investment and whether it would have gone further if it had been distributed across universities or invested in under-resourced ones. In a recent interview with journalist Kara Swisher, John Doerr said even a well-funded university like Stanford needs support to tackle a problem of this magnitude. He noted that only 2% of all philanthropy goes to climate change.
Christopher Newfield, a former distinguished professor at UC Santa Barbara who is now director of research at the Independent Social Research Foundation in London, is critical of how the Doerr funding tilts the power balance in Stanford’s favor.
He said the university’s ties to Silicon Valley should be viewed skeptically, given that venture capital culture has not boded well in the past for companies like Solyndra, a solar company that went under in 2011 after losing its backers. It was difficult for the government to continue funding the company after private investors pulled out, Newfield noted.
“Silicon Valley and Stanford are complicit in this because they are so hostile to government steering,” he said. “Venture capital wants the private investors to retain complete control and has really high return-on-investment standards. Every transition technology requires huge and also long-term investments, and it requires the suppression of market risk.”
Seen in another light, the Stanford initiative creates a funding vehicle to test transition technologies that address climate change. Derrick Anderson, senior vice president of the American Council on Education and an affiliated scholar of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, said many of the solutions needed to meet global sustainability goals are costly, and that universities serve as a safe space to incubate them.
“I can’t imagine a place safer than a university to cultivate a high-risk, high-reward idea,” Anderson said.
This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.